Here’s a phrase I often hear in my allergy clinic: “I’m allergic to animals but not my own.”
So I’m writing this blog post to explain this phenomenon. I’m sorry to say, the answer is not: “You just happen to have the world’s most amazingly non-allergenic animal!”
Let’s start by reviewing the symptoms of animal allergies. These depend on what part of the body is affected. When allergies affect the nose and/or eyes it are called ALLERGIC RHINOCONJUNCTIVITIS (don’t blame me, I didn’t name it). When it affects the lungs it can cause ALLERGIC ASTHMA and when it affect the skin it can cause ALLERGIC URTICARIA (aka ALLERGIC HIVES).
Allergic rhinoconjunctivitis is the most common presentation and has two forms – acute and chronic. The ACUTE SYMPTOMS are experienced when you first encounter something you are allergic to and are obvious – sneezing, itching and a runny nose. But when you are exposed to an animal daily, your body moves away from the acute symptoms and into the realm of CHRONIC SYMPTOMS. The most common chronic symptom of allergy is NASAL CONGESTION (ie. a stuffy nose). So when a person lives with an animal long enough, they no longer have itching, sneezing and a runny nose, but instead have a stuffy nose.
Upon telling this to my patients, I sometimes hear, “I don’t have a stuffy nose.” But when I look into this patient’s nose, they almost always have significant nasal swelling. So why don’t they perceive this? Why don’t they notice how swollen their nose is?
One of my colleagues uses the analogy of putting a pen behind your ear. At first you notice the pen, but over time your body learns to ignore it. It is the same with nasal congestion. Patients learn to live with their symptoms. It becomes their new baseline. They don’t know they snore and they blame the dark circles under their eyes on not sleeping well.
In truth, the dark circles under their eyes are due to nasal congestion. When your eyes make tears, they drain through a small hole on the inside of your eyelid that leads into the nose. So anything that causes nasal congestion – be it allergies, the common cold or large adenoids – blocks the tears from draining and leads to pooling beneath the eyes. In the allergy world we call these ALLERGIC SHINERS.
So yes, you may still be allergic to your own dog, cat, rabbit or badger – you may have just learned to live with your symptoms.
If this is you, the next question becomes, “Should I get rid of my animal? Perhaps send it to the in-laws?” That depends on your symptoms. It is usually a “quality of life” issue – not life-or-death. The only time I strongly advocate for the removal of an animal is if a patient has allergic asthma. Chronic exposure to animal dander in a patient with asthma can lead to worsening and possibly life-threatening asthma attacks. I am especially strict if there is a young child with asthma in the home as their lungs are still developing and can develop scarring. Otherwise, if it is just nose and eye symptoms, and you love Poochy enough to deal with these, it’s up to you. There are avoidance measure you can use to limit your exposure to the dander and you can always see an allergist to receive treatment (to be discussed in a future blog post).
Hope this was helpful! As always, feel free to comment below but keep in mind I cannot answer specific questions about you or your child’s allergies.